House of Lords

From his first London mayoral success to his victory in December, Boris Johnson has been consistent in one thing.

In 2008, he campaigned in the London suburbs with a simple core message. He would get out of the way. While the citizens of Central London tended to want an active mayor, sorting out the city’s problems, the people in the leafy suburbs were fed up with Livingstone’s initiatives.

On a pledge to reduce the power of the Mayor, Johnson boosted turnout in places like Croydon, Harrow and Romford – suburban towns which identified less with the thriving metropolis – and won a storming victory.

In 2019, Johnson’s slogan ‘get Brexit done’, tapped into the same anti-political sentiment. Rather than make the case that leaving the EU would be a good thing, he framed it as a boring process bogged down in parliament. The implicit follow up clause was ‘so we can all get on with our Christmas shopping’. It was devastating.

I spent the week before the vote travelling around the country, asking people how they felt about the election. Almost no one talked about policies. Very few people mentioned tax rates or the housing crisis or climate breakdown or the NHS or education. They talked about truth, and trust.

This isn’t unusual. In fifteen years of talking to strangers in the streets of every corner of the UK about elections and politics, I’ve become very used to these sorts of responses. But what was new was the level of rage – a hatred of ‘politics’, which Johnson had deliberately whipped up with his proroguing of parliament, his own campaign’s lies, and the anti-MP rhetoric coming into the election.

The trick is a clever one. Because ‘politics’ is just another word for ‘democracy’ – or, at least, the closest approximation that we have: the compromises between people and power negotiated for us by the struggles of our ancestors.

Persuade people that these democratic structures are useless and corrupt, and those who argue that decisions should be made in other ways will always thrive. And the idea that decisions should be made through the market and traditional class, gender and racial hierarchies is the core of conservative philosophy.

It’s not just the UK. Interviewing people across Europe in recent years – from Ukraine to Spain – the idea that our systems of democracy have broken and so we should fall back on more traditional decision making structures is the implicit ideology of all of the thriving right. In a working class area on the edge of Prague in February, a youngish woman told me she ‘doesn’t believe in politics’. I asked what she does believe in. ‘The family’, she said. She voted for the country’s conservative, as did many of her neighbours – none of whom had a positive word to say about Czech politics.

But this trick is particularly effective in the UK, for the simple reasons that our political system is particularly broken. When Jeremy Corbyn promised to use it to give people lots of nice things, they didn’t fail to vote for him because they didn’t want the nice things – opinion polls consistently show people are in favour of centre-left ideas like renationalising public services and taxing the rich a bit more.

People I spoke to across the North of England didn’t vote for his manifesto because they didn’t believe ‘politicians’ in general. They didn’t want to be taken for mugs. While lots said that they knew Boris Johnson was the biggest liar of the lot, they were still going to vote for him because he was only really promising one thing – to get Brexit done and, implicitly, get politics out of the way.

Labour’s approach to this problem has been the same as most centre left parties across the Western world. Rather than engage with why it is that people don’t like our political systems, they continue to say they will use those systems to give people nice and necessary things. And this shouldn’t be surprising – the Labour Party became part of the British state around a hundred years ago. It’s very hard for them to analyze and criticise something they are a component of.

The Lib Dems have always argued for political reforms, and always done so appallingly. Rather than grabbing the mains wire and insisting that this is a debate about power and who has it, they always end up quarreling over what form of proportional representation will best deliver some kind of theoretical mathematical equality, or some other sedative. You can’t talk seriously about distortions of democracy in the modern world without being willing to ask questions about class, corporations and capital. And too few liberals are. And so their arguments are ignored.

For Greens, on the other hand, radical democracy sits with ecological and social justice and peace as one of the founding pillars of the party. Green parties grew out of the uprisings of 1968, and the slogan ‘power to the people’ is as much a part of our DNA as is the fight against climate breakdown.

Yet, too often, when Greens in England try to talk about democracy, they follow the logic of either Lib Dems or Labour – banging on about how PR would be a ‘game changer’ in a way that always sounds self-serving, or groaning about how ‘ordinary voters don’t care about these things’.

The former of these is unhelpful. The British establishment has spent years trying to twist the argument about power into a wonky conversation about constitutions. We shouldn’t fall for it. And the latter of these arguments is obvious nonsense. The two electoral events in recent British history with the biggest turnouts were Scotland’s independence referendum and the Brexit vote: both questions about our political system. Give people – particularly non voters – half a chance, and most love talking about how broken our politics is.

English politics is blighted by a deep sense of alienation. People simply don’t trust our political systems, for the simple reason that they aren’t idiots. Either the left will organise that rage against the machine into progressive demands for the redistribution of power to the peoples, or the right will continue using it to prove that ‘politics’ is a failure, and we should leave our ‘natural’ rulers in charge.

Green are uniquely placed to lead that movement. And now is the moment.

This article is the fourth in a series on the forthcoming Green Party of England and Wales leadership election. Bright Green has invited a number of Green Party members and activists to contribute their views on what the next Green Party leader should deliver. The articles in this series can be found here.

PS. Bright Green has big plans for the future, but we need your input. Take 2 minutes to see what we’re planning and tell us your thoughts.

Image credit: vgm8383 – Creative Commons